Israeli and Palestinian negotiators spent more time on planes flying to and from Washington this week than meeting with each other and American officials, but they accomplished enough to begin formal negotiations within the next two weeks. Those talks will be "sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations," will take place in the Middle East and will aim for a comprehensive final status agreement within nine months, said Secretary of State John Kerry.
Before leaving town the two negotiating teams met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House along with Kerry and his special Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk.
Kerry, who made six trips to the region his first six months in office in order to revive the moribund peace talks, has been playing things close to the vest and wants to keep them that way. He wants the talks to be quiet and leak free to give negotiators a chance for frank discussions.
The fewer the leaks the greater likelihood that the two sides can make progress. Warning: Both the Israelis and Palestinians have a surfeit of kibitzers who can't resist offering their opinions even -– or especially -- when they don't know what they're talking about. They're usually cabinet ministers, "senior officials" or "sources close to" the PM or president.
All issues will all be on the table -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements -- with no preconditions, Kerry said. “It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” he noted.
As his negotiators were meeting their Israeli counterparts in Washington, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Cairo declaring there would be no place for any Israelis in Palestine. "In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands," he told journalists in the Egyptian capital.
I can't imagine why any Israeli would want to remain in such a hostile environment, but Abbas' statement doesn't seem to have stirred anything like the outrage that would erupt if an Israeli leader said once the state of Palestine is established, "we would not see the presence of a single Palestinian…on our lands."
Gaps between the two sides are very wide and skepticism about their ability to come to an agreement remains very deep.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under harsh criticism, particularly on the Israeli right, for agreeing to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted of multiple murders of Jews, as Abbas' price for returning to the peace table. Netanyahu could not even get a majority of his own Likud ministers – 3 voted with him, 2 against and 2 abstained – in Sunday's cabinet vote on the release.
If he can't get them on this what is the outlook when he comes for approval of a deal on refugees, Jerusalem, borders and settlements?
If there is a breakthrough in the talks and a final status agreement appears possible, look for Netanyahu's coalition to break up and for him to either form a new government or call for elections. He has promised to take any agreement to voters in a referendum, which could be in the form of new national elections.
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